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Five Tips to Writing an MFA Personal Statement

writing an MFA personal statementSo, I’ve decided to get myself an MFA in creative writing.  I’m applying to four different universities and I’ve been killing myself for the past few weeks trying to write my personal statement.  I’ve been scouring the web, reading books, talking to people and doing everything possible.  I’ve done over a dozen drafts and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1)     Like all writing, you’ve got to catch the reader’s attention.  The professors who search through the hundreds (or thousands) of grad school applications, and personal statements, are going to need something to remember you.  It’s easier to remember a grad school applicant who stands out than someone who doesn’t.  And sometimes it can be what you write, the way you write, or what you don’t write.  I read a story about a grad school applicant whose entire personal statement consisted of: I want to go to your school because I want to learn from the best and be the best.  He got accepted into a program at Stanford.  But even if you just pepper in some casual, but interesting, information, it’d work just as well.  Tell them about that 400lb fish you caught.  Tell them about your year backpacking across Europe.  It’s best to not only focus on your academics, but also do something, anything that catch’s their attention and makes you stand out.

2)     A grad school application and personal statement should be flawlessly written.  You’re not writing a blog post or an essay for freshman English.  You’ve already got a degree, and now they’re expecting perfection.  This could be one of the most important essays that you ever write.  The difference between a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s is huge, so put in the effort.

3)     Don’t come off as a braggart.  The application and personal statement is about selling you, but it still has to be done in an unobtrusive manner.  Don’t just tell them how great you are; show them by explaining your accomplishments and sharing personal stories…which brings us to…

4)     Put yourself in the essay.  Don’t try to make it sound too academic.  The people who are going to be looking through the essays want to know who you are.  As stated in above, add in little tidbits about yourself and make them personal.  Don’t just mention the award you won or the paper you published, talk about how your father influenced your writing or how you mother believed in you.

5)     As always, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite.

Deadlines aren’t for another few weeks, but as soon as I find out I’ll give an update on whether or not my techniques worked.

Update: Just to let you know, I got accepted into every grad school program that I applied to.  So the techniques work!

Related Article:  Is it worth it to get an MFA in creative writing?

9 thoughts on “Five Tips to Writing an MFA Personal Statement”

  1. This is great news Michael. Congratulations and I know that you’ll get into a great school. Best of luck.

  2. I was just looking for something like this. Although I’m applying for my masters in creative writing and not an MFA I think the process is the same. It sounds like you’ve got a very simple technique and it’s one that I’m trying to work on too. By trying to sound professional yet informal I’m hoping that it will show them that I’m a real person and not just a student that sits behind books.

  3. I’m another two years away from graduate school but I’ll bookmark this. I’m learning about the “rewrite rewrite rewrite” thing write now in school; the last paper I handed in I did over five drafts for and I can’t even imagine how many drafts I’ll be doing when trying to get into grad school. How many drafts did it take you?

    1. “Over a dozen.” It depends if you include a serious edit a draft. Some people only consider it a new draft if its completely rewrite. I tend to consider that a heavy edit is considered making it a new draft and with that said, I’ve done easily ove ra dozen different edits. One of the things, though, is that I’m applying to different schools and for each school the personal statement requirements are similar but not the same, so I’m basing everything off of one initial draft but each school requires a slightly different essay which means different drafts and editing processes for each school, so taken that into account I’d probably say I’ve done 30+ rounds of edits.

  4. I think numbers four and five are the most important. Really you’ve got to put yourself in the essay and I don’t think it matters to much if you catch their attention with the first word or the tenth word, they have to read it no matter what and if you can really show them who you are, and I don’t think it matters if you’re a little of a braggard, because if your voice comes across in the essay it doesn’t matter if you’re a little annoying because a good reader can look through that and see who has potential for their MFA program and I think THAT’s the most important part. It’s an MFA program so people know that your writing’s not going to be perfect and what they’re really looking for are students with potential and I think that if you go into it and try to make things too clean and too perfect, then that can really mess up your chances. Better to be yourself and a little different and to push then edge than to not go far enough and come across as to clean cut and unimaginative.

    1. Good point, but I just think of the tips as a mixture of things to keep in mind. Of course if the writing is good enough and shows enough potential than almost anything can be overlooked, but I was just giving the tips as a general rule of thumb.

  5. Great advice, but would you be open to posting your actual statement on your blog? There are so few examples out there, and since you got into all the places you applied to, yours must be good.

    1. Christine, I’ve thought about it before, but the essay was about certain things that I don’t feel like sharing in a blog post. But everything I listed is exactly the steps and techniques I used. Once it comes down to it, and you forget about the stress, etc, I think it becomes a pretty easy step by step process.

  6. thank you for the advice. I’ll be applying soon and it even though I’m going to graduate school for writing the personal essay is so nerve wracking!!! I hope I’ll do well though.

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